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Put all our eggs in one vaccine

President Duterte has said it himself: in the absence of a vaccine, it is futile to propose a roadmap to recover from the massive damage caused by COVID-19. In his State of the Nation address last Monday, he went out of script to announce that he had made a plea to Chinese leader Xi Jinping that if they had the vaccine they can allow us to be one of the first or if necessary. , if we have to buy it, that we will get credit so that we can normalize as quickly as possible.

Last Friday he looked more confident. By December we will be back to normal. By December, it was all over. This is my guarantee, the first to receive, the poor, those who receive government assistance. Now second, the average income. It’s free, I won’t sell it.

Mr Duterte is perhaps one of the few leaders in the world and US President Donald Trump is the loudest of them, whose strategy to deal with the current pandemic and its myriad consequences rests entirely on the discovery of ‘a vaccine. They almost seem as if their political survival hinges on rolling out this vaccine before the end of this year, not later.

This misplaced optimism about the revolutionary promise of a COVID-19 vaccine underestimates the complexity of the process of developing a safe and effective vaccine. It feeds people false hopes of a magical return to normalcy, instead of offering them assistance and advice, and preparing them for what may not be so much a protracted battle as it is a way of living with a pathogen. still largely unknown.

University of Chicago epidemiologist and evolutionary biologist Sarah Cobey says that while the COVID-19 pandemic is a separate and very new situation, there is much we can learn from the course of past pandemics. What happens is usually a function of two things: first, how the pathogen evolves; and second, how human beings react to it in biological and social terms.

Certain viruses appear in the human population with so much novelty that they can escape the attention of the immune system. That is SARS-CoV-2. Its unique characteristics allow it to anchor itself effectively in human cells and use these cells to multiply. Taken by surprise, the immune system can work twice as hard to produce enough antibodies to ward off the invading virus. But, instead of killing the virus, the immune response itself can sometimes make the disease worse.

The societal response is not much different. The virus can already spread silently within communities before it is detected. Instead of stopping the virus, indiscriminate lockdowns and stay-at-home orders can ironically provide the virus with the perfect conditions to multiply.

Poor management and coordination, compounded by the uneven and inconsistent application of severe containment measures, can breed public distrust of the wisdom of government responses. As a result, people may feel pressured to violate drastic restrictions and run the risk of becoming infected, rather than starving to death.

As if human responses to pathogens and pandemics weren’t complicated enough, viruses add complexity by continually mutating as they encounter different environments. The best vaccines are those that can be regularly updated to support these mutations. Granting long-term immunity is rarely a virtue of vaccines, especially those that are developed in haste. But, seeing how this pandemic is destroying human society everywhere, even a short-term vaccine that has been shown to be safe and effective will be a big boon.

No one knows exactly where this vaccine will come from. Vaccine development is very expensive and typically requires years of careful R&D before a product is licensed. Many promising candidates are left behind, far from the finish line. Those who persist may find in the end that the market is no longer there because the epidemic has been contained. The Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 ended when natural infections conferred immunity on those who recovered, having infected 500 million people and killed more than 50 million. The virus circulated as a seasonal virus for another 40 years, until another strain of the influenza virus repelled it.

Today, up to 141 candidate COVID-19 vaccines are in the pipeline. According to the World Health Organization, 25 of them are in human trials and six are in the final stages of human trials. President Duterte is betting on those developed by the Chinese companies Sinovac and Sinopharm. Although they are in the top six in terms of progress in their trials, not much is known about the specific technology behind their respective vaccine candidates.

There’s more information about what’s going on in the labs of Pfizer / BioNTech and a small startup called Moderna. Currently in a phase 3 trial, the Modernas vaccine is said to be ready to be submitted for approval and licensing as soon as the results of the summer trials are known. If all goes well, final approval is expected between September and October of this year. Mass production of the vaccine could take a few more months. Governments that have advanced money to fund these efforts will surely receive the first batch of vaccine for their own citizens.

Assuming one of China’s three vaccine candidates hits the finish line by September or October, a December deployment to the Philippines, as President Duterte expects, is unrealistic. Unless he’s just thinking of the country as the site for vaccine trials in China.

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